ethics of transgression

Sometimes we think that moral rules change depending on how other people are responding to them. There may be a set of rules A that applies when most people are obeying them, but another set that applies when people are mostly disregarding these rules. The idea is that if I live in a society of callous sadists, I may have different responsibilities then if I lived in a society full of normal, reasonably moral people.

But there are cases when my action is what will make the difference to whether which of the two rules will apply. Pretend that you and I are the only people in a society. Pretend that the A set of rules is “make others better off” where the B set is much more relaxed and just says “don’t harm others.” Well if the A rules are in effect, then by not helping you when I could have, I’ve done something wrong. However, imagine that I decide not to help you, does my not helping, ie not complying, make it the case that the only the B rules are in effect. By doing something that is wrong under one set of rules, it seems that I’ve moved things over to the more relaxed set of rules, set B, within which my action is not wrong.

Not sure what to make of this other than to say that such situations are more common than we think. Think of Hobbes and the state of nature. We have no moral responsibilities until we make a covenant to leave the state of nature and set up a government. But what if I break the covenant? It’s wrong to break the covenant when I break it, but after the covenant is broken, I’ve returned myself to the state of nature where nothing is wrong. Is it wrong to break the covenant?


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